This hobby is almost 50 years old at this point. There have been literally thousands and thousands of adventures written and are available.
Why are we always playing the same ones? Why do people always fall back on Keep on the Borderlands, Forgotten City, Ghost towers, Horror Tombs, and Giants in their lairs, leading to drow?
I mean, Modern cinema isn't obsessed with the movies that came out in the 70's. You don't see Deer Hunter being played and replayed over by viewers. (The fact that a significant portion of my readers were not alive when that movie came out, much less have even heard of it. In hindsight maybe it shouldn't have won best picture of 1979 versus Grease and Superman, which you know, weren't even nominated).
It's a joke, surely. But it's not.
We keep replaying the same old old modules because they are good and other adventures are not.
The old masters, Gygax, Jennell, and others—they knew how to write an adventure. Everyone else copied the form, not understanding the intent, and produced jumbled linear messes that are boring and dumb; literally not fun to play. How many good adventures can you name? What percentage is that of 12,000?
In part one we looked at how Gygax presented Keep on the Borderlands in just a page so that Dungeon Masters understood the excitement and wonder that was about to occur. You can't read his introduction without getting hype!
In part two, we looked at how the sequels just presented jumbles of random, useless, and most importantly inaccessible information. More importantly, we saw how Gygax used the physical layout to generate tension in the keep with player desire, a deliberate tactic used to create the tension that emergent play develops from.
The Journey to the Keep
You know how if you want to go on a theme park ride, there's a big sign? You just walk up to it and ride? That can be fun, but it's not an adventure.
You have to find the adventure. Finding the adventure location isn't something that delays play. Eliminating it to "speed things up" is missing the point. The adventure location exists among a living world. Travelling there, through the fantasy realm, to the threshold of chaos cannot be removed simply to get to the combat fasters.
Let's look at these wilderness encounters:
A madman hermit(thief) with a pet lion who wants to attack the party but is friendly first.
A mut pit with a roof and a hole, which lizard men come out one at a time to fight players, until only the women and children are left in the mud hole.
A group of bandits with their eye on the keep and any adventurers
Two spiders who guard the corpse of an ancient elf.
Explicitly, each of these create tension within the game world. This tension drives emergent play. Each is described in a way that makes them easy to represent by the Dungeon Master. All the relevant information is accessible to the players.
I'm not saying it's perfect. There's useless text in there (how many gold and silver pieces each of the different bandit types are carrying.)
But each of the different encounters creates a new tension in the world. Each is memorable and easy to represent. Each inspires other thoughts, questions, and adventure. Each is an event that can go many different ways on how the players approach.
How did "2.2d4 Dire Boars" become a standard?
This being a learning module isn't relevant to our discussion, but it does provide some interesting insights into presentation. Gygax cautions at the very front: "Add whatever you feel is appropriate to the description of what they see, but be careful not to give anything away or mislead them." This is a concrete example of how he viewed the Dungeon Master as impartial arbiter of the game.
His description of discovering the caves is short and is entirely devoted to explaining the space in a way that allows us to visualize it, and, of course, setting the tone:
The sunlight is dim, the air dank, there is an oppressive feeling here—as if something evil is watching and waiting to pounce upon you. There are bare, dead trees here and there, and upon one a vulture perches and gazes hungrily at you. A flock of ravens rise croaking from the ground, the beat of their wings and their cries magnified by the terrain to sound loud and horrible. Amongst the litter of rubble, boulders, and dead wood scattered about on the ravine floor, you can see bits of gleaming ivory and white - closer inspection reveals that these are bones and skulls of men, animals, and other thing,. . .You know that you have certainly discovered the Caves Of Chaos.Here's another thing that's explicit in the module. "With this knowledge, they might be able to set tribes to fighting one another, and then the adventurers can take advantage of the weakened state of the feuding humanoids." In this adventure, indeed in most of his adventures Gygax assume that there will be multiple forces, often in equilibrium that the players will disturb or can leverage as they explore. It's this dynamic response that creates emergent adventure and dramatic scenes.
On the next article, we'll take a look at they keys for the caves themselves. . .
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